MESA, Ariz. — Kris Bryant made it abundantly clear — with his bat — that his balky left shoulder of last season is completely healed.
Bryant had been one of the most impressive players in Chicago Cubs camp leading up to the first day position players needed to report this week. He put on a show in batting practice and looked smooth in the field while working out on the back fields.
A good sign for the Cubs after the former NL MVP played only 102 games last year.
"The off-season was the time to ease into it, which I did," Bryant said. "Now, this is the time to go. There's no easing into it. I'm ready to go. Full steam ahead."
A bounce-back by their star third baseman is what the Cubs hope can help them regain their standing as the top team in the NL Central after last season's disappointing end.
The Cubs faltered down the stretch, losing a five-game lead to Milwaukee and ultimately Game 163 for the division title, and then fell in the wild-card game to Colorado.
Having a healthy Bryant, who twice went on the disabled list after sustaining a bone bruise in his left shoulder while sliding headfirst into first base, might have made a difference.
"When you lose Kris Bryant for the majority of the season that's going to take a toll on our team," Cubs starter Jon Lester said. "And it did."
Bryant won NL Rookie of the Year and MVP in back-to-back seasons and then finished seventh in MVP voting in his third season in 2017.
Then his instincts got the best of him last year.
The headfirst slide, something he said he doesn't like but did in the heat of the moment, came on May 19 while trying to leg out a hit. The injury led to him changing his swing to compensate for the pain, and a career low in games (102) and stats (.272, 13 home runs, 52 RBIs, .834 OPS).
Before the injury, he had a batting average/on-base/slugging line of .311/.428/.595 in 38 games. He finished the rest of the year on a downslide with a slash line of .249/.339/.378.
"We didn't give it enough time to properly heal," Bryant said. "Kind of like when you sprain an ankle and you keep walking on it or you keep exercising on it. It's not going to heal the way it should. That's kind of what I was doing."
"I'd take a week off and get back into things, swinging light and doing this and, for me, I really needed to just not do anything for like a month," he said. "And that's kind of what I did this off-season. I went home and I didn't do anything."
When Bryant resumed his workouts, "sure, I felt a little sore, but it was good soreness," he said. "And then a month after that I was like, 'Wow, it's completely gone. I feel great. I'm going to start swinging.' And I did and everything just kind of took off from there."
Bryant is confident he is back to his normal self and the signature one-handed finish that was too painful to use at times in 2018.
"Any time I take the baseball field, whether it's a spring training game or an actual game, I'm looking to do damage," he said. "That's kind of my mindset this year."
It starts Saturday when the Cubs host the Brewers in their exhibition opener.
"Last year I was trying to battle through certain things and trying to alleviate what I was feeling," he said. "I've been a really dang good baseball player with that swing my whole life."
"I was looking at me when I was 8 years old and I swung the same way, so I'm not going to change anything just because I had an injury last year. I'm over the injury. I've done everything I need to do to get over it, and I'm back to who I am," he said.
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